Empowered to succeed

Alumna James Karanja (wearing a navy blazer), completed a short course in Technical Vocational Education Training in 2013.

This story forms part of the 2017 Outcomes Study. Alumni were selected to share their Most Significant Change as a result of the Australia Awards program.

Kenya, just like many other developing countries, has a culture that views people with disabilities as social burdens who are not of much economic value. In some cases, they are considered as lesser human beings who exist because of curse, witchcraft or by accident. The situation gets worse as the government invests so little in disability programs. Consequently, many people with disabilities in Kenya have limited access to education, social and economic opportunities, making it hard for them to lead quality lives. To address the education needs of the “differently talented” children, parents come together and start community-based special schools.

I am always encouraged to make a strong commitment that ensures a positive difference in the lives of people living with autism and other developmental disabilities. I initiated a vocational education class at the Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL), a community-based school catering for children with special needs in Nairobi. This class caters to students whose strengths are not necessarily in academics. I spent most of my time teaching them practical life skills for example grooming, counting money, giving directions, art and Information and Technology courses. However, there was no opportunity for students to transition from their schooling period to a work life. The school’s administration and parents did not know how to support students when they reached the school’s age limit of 21. For me, the challenge was that these students were not prepared for life outside school.

In 2013, I applied for an Australia Award short course in TVET delivered in both Australia and  South Africa. My experiences in both countries had a tremendous impact on my career. In South Africa, a visit to Ithemba Institute of Technology in Soweto opened my eyes to how a partnership with industry formed the basis for successful implementation of any vocational training.  I further experienced the same when I was in Australia. Our training at Chisholm Institute involved a visit to Latrobe Valley Enterprises, a not-for-profit company with a network of commercially viable businesses that provides employment opportunities for disadvantaged people. Interacting with autistic adults and other people with developmental challenges inspired me to believe we could do the same at KCCL.

Young people with disabilities need real work skills to improve their chances of securing gainful employment. I felt the short course training offered me a practical solution to the transition challenges at KCCL. Motivated by what I had learnt, I was keen to make a difference in the training methodology which focused on empowering my students beyond the acquisition of only the daily living skills. My work plan on return centred on transitional skills aimed at preparing the students with employability and other skills needed in the workplace.

When I returned to Kenya, I was determined to change things at KCCL. However, things did not go smoothly. Creating an innovative and successful transition plan meant investment in creative ideas, attitude change for everyone involved, and a budget to cater for equipment and other resources needed. Not everybody was as enthusiastic as I was. The initial budget I submitted was considered unsustainable. Some parents were not happy for they feared the transition was about setting timelines for their ageing students to graduate before the right time. I organised meetings with parents and the school administration to convince them that was the way to go.

To ensure the project was cost effective, we focused on using resources available within the school to support the new program. We prepared elaborate plans with goals for each student’s Individualised Transition Plan. The approach was to utilise available resources in the school. Apart from daily living skills, the focus shifted to training the students in skills that could offer them independent or supported employment such as culinary arts, managing tree seedlings, data entry, and vocational training. Two culinary students were immediately offered internships at the school kitchen to gain culinary skills. Through partnerships with industries and other stakeholders, students producing jewellery, mats and seedlings are able to find a market.

Creating partnerships with industry and stakeholders has led to a new collaboration with the iLab at Strathmore University to train young people on the autism spectrum in IT. The first five students graduated in late April, and two have already found a work placement. My Australia Award has helped remove enormous obstacles towards empowering young people on the autism spectrum to succeed in life. I have no doubt the students are empowered to succeed!

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